There might be no way to recapture the effervescent weirdness of American Horror Story‘s pilot episode. I watched it again last night and the icky fun is in the specific details: a dog-bone mobile tinkling in the breeze, two foulmouthed gingers discovering a dying possum. There is so much potential in a dog-bone mobile in a creepy, beautiful house explored by a damaged family. But if Ryan Murphy doesn’t quite get there with the second season premiere, boy, it’s certainly not for lack of trying!
The official description is enticing enough: “A church-run haven for the criminally insane, ruled with an iron fist by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), a nun with a troubled past… From Nazis and serial killers, to mutants and aliens, no one is safe inside these walls. ” Nazis, serial killers and aliens: the promise in those words is enough to make me want to get down and kiss Ryan Murphy’s ring. By rebooting the show’s plot, setting and characters for the second season, AHS joins the grand horror tradition of anthologies like Creepshow and V/H/S. It wisely kept Jessica Lange, thank God.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The season premiere starts in modern times, with sexy newlyweds Leo (Adam Levine) and Teresa (Jenna Dewan-Tatum) sneaking into the long-abandoned Briarcliff Manor, ignoring a befouled baby doll hanging from a tree branch, the international symbol for “Hot Couple Murder Zone.” We learn that the gargantuan building is a tuberculosis hospital-cum-sanitarium for the criminally insane. “We should totally do it in the Death Chute,” Jenna declares. Yeah, seems like a safe bet. The two get hornier and hornier until Leo’s arm is suddenly torn from his body after sticking it through the slot in a cell door.
As Teresa screams, we’re brought back to 1964, where Kit Walker (Evan Peters) closes down a gas station. His friends show up to act like leering weirdos. From the creepy way his pal Billy bites into a candy bar and says “chocolate,” we can correctly guess that Kit’s wife is black. He returns home and gently debates with spouse Alma (Britne Oldford) when they should go public with their secret marriage. They giggle as they fall into bed, from which we can infer that something horrible is about to happen to one or both of them. “They say all good things must end,” the radio croons. Just then, a goddamn alien shows up. Shrieking, Kit is sucked to the ceiling. He gasps for air in a brilliant white room, where he’s whipped across the face by a goddamn alien hand. Well, they went with aliens first. AHS clearly wants to show us it still has a few surprises up its sleeve and, as far as I’m concerned, they bet on the right horse. The alien horse.
Meanwhile, reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) shows up to write a puff piece on the sanitarium’s bakery. She’s greeted by the flower-baring patient Pepper, a friendly gal with microcephaly who seems to parallel last season’s Addie. ” She’s just trying to make friends. It’s harmless,” Lana says with a smile. “She’s not harmless,” Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) replies, smiling back. “She drowned her sister’s baby and cut its ears off.” Okay, but what about that goddamn alien, ladies?
Inside, Lana is greeted what seems to be a pretty lacking security situation for the criminally insane, even by 1964’s standards. The two barge in on Sister Jude shaving Shelly‘s (Chloe Sevigny) head. “You can shave me bald and I’ll still be the hottest tamale in this joint,” she spits. I know we all miss Connie Britton, but might a nymphomaniacal Chloe Sevigny help fill the void?
AHS has always been the Jessica Lange show, and this season is no different. From the moment she dropped off a pair of poisoned cupcakes to when she uttered the harshest line of all (“You’ll go as Snoopy or not as all”) last season, Constance Langdon was pure malevolent camp with a perpetually fierce lip. If anything, Sister Jude is merely fiercer. “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin,” she explains, wearing a habit so fabulous and tailored, I can understand why some people believe in God. While no one loves molasses bread baked by the criminal insane more than Lana, we soon realize she might not be the Senior Baked Goods Editor she claims to be. We can tell from her field notebook, in which she’s scribbled helpful notes like “Hiding something?” and “Lies.” Sister Jude’s court-holding is interrupted by the arrival of serial murderer/human flesh-wearer Bloody Face, who turns out to be…Kit Walker! Kit claims to be innocent, blaming his alien abductors for the murders, including Alma’s (or so it seems). “They weren’t human. They were monsters, ” he whispers.
“All monsters are human,” Jude intones. Her sneers alone!
After being accosted by Shelly (“I speak French… and Greek,” she declares, grinding into him – oh that Shelly!) and jumped by another inmate, Kit is befriended by convicted French killer Grace (Lizzie Brochere). She is kind to him, bringing him a hearty helping of gruel for dinner, so clearly she is a figment of his imagination – or, with any luck, an alien.
Which brings us to Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), Briarcliff’s resident physician and all-around psychopath. Sister Jude confronts him about the disappearance of four inmates. While he reassures her they all totally died of completely normal horrible diseases, we see a ravenous hand grab a bowl of raw meat tossed through the same door slot peeped earlier. “I’ll always win against the patriarchal male,” Sister Jude sniffs, possibly to distract me from how completely over-the-top Dr. Arden seems to be. At the end of the episode, we see him casually hosing down a cell. “What? Something’s obviously been living in here as evidenced by all the bloody scratches on the wall? Never mind that! Science!” It’s all a bit much.
We soon learn that Sister Jude has a flame for the institution’s Monsignor Timothy (Joseph Fiennes). Really, the pilot is worth watching alone for the shot of Jessica Lange sensually rubbing perfume onto her chest while wearing a red teddy and habit. She closes her eyes and a choir sings. Did I mention the whole scene is in slow motion? Like so much of Ryan Murphy’s work, I don’t know if this is actually any good… but God, do I like it.
Having vowed to her girlfriend Eva (Clea Duvall) that she would bust Briarcliff open wider than a delicious loaf of sanitarium dessert bread, Lana sneaks back onto the grounds because she is the bravest, dumbest woman alive. She finds Sister Mary Eunice dropping off buckets of raw meat in the woods, the sound of snarling animals around them. Meanwhile, Dr. Arden straps a pleading Kit to an operating table for a completely ethical and normal electroshock session. We see Kit flash back to an alien hand probing his b-hole, and Dr. Arden slices open Kit’s neck to find a microchip. The microchip then grows goddamn insect legs and runs away.
Having been grabbed by a bloody arm reaching through that same door slot, Lana wakes up cuffed to a bed. Sister Jude visits Eva and threatens to expose their same-sex “shenanigans” to their town. Begrudgingly (and with absolutely no legal authority whatsoever, which is even established in the scene), Eva signs the papers committing her girlfriend to Briarcliff. After Kit and Alma’s doomed romance, I’m starting to think this season is really about marriage equality… oh yeah, AND ALIENS. “We’re going to slay that monster together, you and I, ” Sister Jude tells a screaming Lana.
Back in the present, Teresa sprints down what I’m assuming must be the Death Chute. As she reaches the end, who should step out of the shadows but the flesh-masked Bloody Face himself (or herself!).
So maybe the season premiere didn’t have the sparkling eccentricity of the pilot. This might be in part because the numerous plot points seem tied to more traditional horror tropes. A sexy couple gets attacked in an abandoned hospital. Nuns are kinky authoritarians. Bloody Face wears a mask out of dead ladies. That being said, there are more than enough intriguing details to sign up for another ride on this demented merry-go-round. (Unless it was a hallucination, that microchip definitely done grew bug legs.) So if you’re willing, let us be born anew and suckle at the wackadoo teat of Ryan Murphy – not as a baby antichrist but as, let’s say, a baby Nazi serial killer alien. Amen.